May 032018

I’ve been meaning to share some thoughts about writing retreats, conferences and workshops. What can you expect? How do you choose the right one? Here are a few ideas.

Last week I spent five glorious days in California at Sonoma County Writers Camp (SCWC). Run by New York Times bestselling author Ellen Sussman, and writer Elizabeth Stark, SCWC offers workshops and master classes suitable for writers at every level, plus tons of private writing time! This was my second time attending SCWC and I loved every minute!

Elizabeth, center, and Ellen, right, at the opening night wine tasting. Photo by Angie Powers.

Photo by Angie Powers.

Held at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, SCWC truly has a camp feel, with stories told round the fire and frogs croaking all through the night — but with comfy beds and indoor plumbing. Check out the compostable toilets!  😆 The food is all fresh and healthy vegetarian, much of it grown on site, but because it’s Sonoma County, the long weekend kicked off with a local wine tasting, hosted by Eric Kent Winery. Cheers!

One thing I love about SCWC is that the sessions led by Elizabeth and Ellen are generative. The means you write during the classes vs. presenting polished work from home for critique. Generative workshops are perfect for beginners, because you simply dive in and write, with a little support. The generative approach also works well for experienced writers who want to break out of a rut or bust past a block and get that creativity flowing!

Other fantastic conferences I’ve attended that offer generative workshops include Vortext (for women only) on Whidbey Island, Washington. Writing By Writers, founded by writer Pam Houston, puts on conferences all over the world,  and often includes generative workshops in the mix. I’ve attended both these conferences multiple times as well, and I highly recommend them!

But what if you have a piece of writing you’ve been laboring over? You’ve taken it as far as it can go on your own but you know it still needs work? A critique workshop may be what you need. For this type of conference, you submit a writing sample in advance, and receive pages from other writers to review. During the conference, each writer’s work is discussed in depth by the group and you leave with a ton of feedback from everyone. Critique workshops can feel a little bruising if you’re not used to the approach, but a good instructor should ensure that comments stay productive. Writing by Writers offers critique workshops, as does the magnificent Sirenland, offered by Dani Shapiro and Hannah Tinti in Positano, Italy.

At a retreat or a residency, everything revolves around writing time, though guidance may be offered. At Linda Sivertsen’s amazing Carmel Writing Retreats, attendees discuss their projects together, brainstorm, set goals and then spend hours quietly working. Linda also meets one-on-one with each attendee and helps with everything from editing, to pep talks, to advice on finding an agent. For myself, I’ve learned that events with lots of writing time with built in accountability to other writers works really well for me, which is what Linda offers, but you can create the same productive atmosphere with friends at a DIY retreat.

Industry or pitch conferences are a great way to learn about the business of publishing and how to market your work. I’ll be speaking on a panel later this month at the American Society of Journalists and Authors Conference in New York. Rudri Bhatt Patel, Jenn Morson, Jen Simon and I will offer tips on pitching essays and articles to magazines. Our May 19 presentation is part of non-members day at the conference, geared to writers just starting out. If you have a book idea, industry conferences offer a the chance to find out what agents and editors are looking for, and to get feedback from pros on your project if you’re ready.

Sometimes the lines at conferences and workshops get blurred. Craft may mix with industry, and a retreat might include critique workshops. For example, Sonoma County Writers Camp always includes a publishing industry panel, to give attendees a taste of what agents, editors and booksellers do.  The important thing when choosing a conference or event is to figure out what YOUR objective is in participating. Do you need writing time? Instruction? Feedback? Inspiration? Are you looking to network and make publishing industry connections? Read the conference description carefully to be sure you understand what’s on offer, try to get feedback from past attendees, and then go for what you need.

Have you attended a really great writer’s conference or retreat? Have you created a conference? Feel free to share info and tips in the comments.


 Posted by at 1:58 am

Announcing the winner of the YOU MADE ME A MOTHER GIVEAWAY — Plus an interview with the author, Laurenne Sala

 Authors, Books, Children's Books, Finding a literary agent, Giveaways, Memoir, Parenting, Uncategorized  Comments Off on Announcing the winner of the YOU MADE ME A MOTHER GIVEAWAY — Plus an interview with the author, Laurenne Sala
May 102017

I’m SUPER excited to announce the winner of the YOU MADE ME A MOTHER giveaway:


Congratulations, Ruth! Please shoot me an email via the online contact form here on the site and include your address. If you reply today, I’ll do my best to get an autographed copy to you in time for Mother’s Day!

Full disclosure: Ruth is a friend, but her entry was chosen using the random number service If you didn’t win this time, I’m sorry! Still, I’ve got a treat for you all in the form of an interview with the author of YOU MADE ME A MOTHER, Laurenne Sala, that aspiring writers in particular may find interesting…


How an Unpublished Memoirist Became a Big Time Children’s Book Author

Laurenne Sala, 35, founded an LA stage show where people reveal their most taboo secrets, wrote scripts for Funny or Die, and conquered the advertising world, but her dreams of publishing a book went unfulfilled, until an unexpected break made her an author.

“I don’t do things half-assed. Ever,” my friend Laurenne Sala says. “I always tried to write with my heart and give it my all, and then I was finally noticed. I see success happen to everyone who does not give up! ”

A little background: Laurenne grew up a child of divorce outside Chicago. At 10, she discovered her funny, caring dad was gay, but at 15, she lost him to suicide, a pain that stayed buried for years.

She left home to study communications at the University of Southern California. Next, she pursued a Masters in Advertising Copywriting at Miami Ad School. Then she had to move back in with her mom for awhile.

“I worked on my portfolio day in and day out,” she remembers. “I told myself that I wouldn’t shave my legs or armpits until I got a job. It took three months!”

Her first gig was writing commercials for Jack in the Box at a small ad agency. “The agency was great. They taught me the ropes. But my very first day at the office, I remember thinking that I had to write a book. I didn’t think I could swing a cubicle job for that long.”

With her ad career launched, Laurenne enrolled in an adult writing class at night, where she finally opened up about her father’s death. The relief she felt in sharing her story with her classmates led to the creation of Taboo Tales, a Los Angeles-based storytelling show with the motto THE MORE WE ALL TALK ABOUT HOW FUCKED UP WE ARE, THE MORE NORMAL WE ALL FEEL. She found more success writing for Funny or Die, but a memoir about her father’s death felt closest to her heart.

I should tell you that Laurenne and I became friends because of that memoir. We met a few years ago at the SDSU Writers Conference at the memoir table at the networking lunch.

“One thing I loved about the memoir was that the first half was told from my father’s point of view. I wrote the other half as if I was my mom,” she says.

Although I remember Laurenne getting positive comments about the book from publishing professionals at the SDSU Conference, her manuscript garnered more than 60 rejections from literary agents. She opted to put the memoir aside for awhile and carried on with her ad career and Taboo Tales. She also kept trying to publish short pieces, and landed an essay about her dad’s death in the anthology DANCING AT THE SHAME PROM, published by Seal Press in 2012.

Despite her intense literary aspirations, Laurenne never dreamed of writing a children’s book. Here’s how it happened.

She first created the text of YOU MADE ME A MOTHER as promotional copy for Boba, makers of baby wraps and carriers. At the time, Laurenne was single and childless, yet she clearly captured some new mom emotions, because when Boba made a tear-jerker of a video from her writing, it went viral.

After that came the big shock: HarperCollins called! The publishing giant offered to pair her up with popular illustrator Robin Preiss Glasser, of bestselling FANCY NANCY fame, to ensure the book’s success. YOU MADE ME A MOTHER won rave reviews and sold out on Amazon within 24 hours of its debut last year.

“The cool thing about YOU MADE ME A MOTHER is that it’s truly a mixture of everything I’ve done in my career,” says Sala. “It began as an ad! And it makes people cry! I’ve always wanted to write something that makes people feel.”

Today Laurenne is having all the fun reading her book to kids and encouraging them to share their feelings too. A sequel, YOU MADE ME A FATHER, will publish in time for Father’s Day 2018 (though you can get a sneak peek here in the video Boba has already made.)

“I struck while the iron was still hot with Harper,” she recalls.  “As soon as we had the mom book contract in the works, I sent the dad book manuscript! I figured I’d do that while they were still into me! It worked, and they bought it within 2 weeks.”
In other joyful news, Laurenne got married last year, not long after her book was published, and she’s expecting a baby girl this fall!! Her memoir remains on hold for now, but she’s got a new project in the works called The Grief Collective, a collection of data, experiences, and stories that all involve losing a parent.

“Anyone who has grieved the loss of a parent can join here:,” Laurenne explains. “You can sign up to answer one question a month, which helps me compare experiences and see what we all have in common when it comes to grieving.”

I can’t wait to see where this project goes!


 Posted by at 3:22 pm

Finding a Literary Agent: Acing the Much Anticipated Phone Call

 Finding a literary agent, Memoir, Uncategorized, Writing  Comments Off on Finding a Literary Agent: Acing the Much Anticipated Phone Call
Nov 152016

Well, we’re one week out from the shocking US Presidential election that has left so many devastated. I’m personally just starting to claw myself out of a well of despair. Attending a poetry reading Friday night at Hugo House helped, as did a reassuring note from my agent that a Trump presidency doesn’t spell the demise of the publishing industry. Although I refuse to call things back to normal in America, it does make sense for us writers to get back to work as we feel able, for the good of the country and for our own sanity. Writing CAN make a difference. And since you sometimes need an agent to help you get your words out into the world, let’s talk about a truly exciting part of the agent search: acing a phone call with someone who’s interested in representing you.


When Opportunity Knocks, Be Ready

Most of the time, an agent will want to schedule the call in advance, but a few go getters may ring without warning, so make sure you’ve done your homework regarding the agents you’ve queried. Also, learn as much as you can about how the publishing world works early in the submission process so that you’re not totally unprepared if a call takes you by surprise. Like Oprah says…


For the purposes of this post, however, let’s assume you have some prep time before a scheduled call. After you jump up and down and scream for joy and maybe eat a cookie because an agent wants to chat, what should you do?


First of all, do a fresh round of the research on the agent.

Review the agent’s website. Read any interviews they’ve given or articles they’ve published. Check YouTube for videos.  Google madly.

If you’ve purchased a Publishers Marketplace membership as I suggested in a previous post, go to PW now and check out the agent’s sales history. Has the agent sold any books recently? If not, why not? Have they sold any books in your category lately? Have they sold multiple books for the same author? (Hint: That may be important if you’re looking for a long-term career partner.) Also, see how many clients the agent has. Will they have plenty of time to devote to you, or be spread thin?  Skim the agent’s client list — is there anybody you know/could reach out to and see if they are satisfied with their representation?

Of course, not all agents contribute data to PW, but for those who do, you’ll find the site a useful source of info that can  help you identify areas you want to address during the call. And if you’re lucky enough to have more than one agent vying for your attentions, be sure to use PW to compare their profiles.

Amazingly, I had two agent phone calls to prepare for this summer. A review of PW’s data revealed that one of them had sold several memoirs to small presses — publishing houses with typical advances of $5K or so that I knew I didn’t need an agent to approach. This was useful info to have in my back pocket, since I’d prefer not to share a tiny advance with an agent if I don’t have to!  Plus, my dream is to have the support of one of the Big 5, so as I went into my calls, I wanted to determine if either/both of the agents shared my big vision.


Next, draft a list questions.

I wish I’d saved my questions,  but I tossed them right after I made my agent decision. As always, I googled obsessively to prepare (ie “literary agent call”and “what to ask a literary agent before signing.”) I read tons of posts on asking the right questions. For example, the site has a great basic list:

1. What is your communication style? Do you prefer phone or email? Do you check in often even when we’re not on active submission?
2. Tell me more about how your agency works and handles clients. Is there an agency agreement for new clients? (There usually will be, it’s okay to ask to see it beforehand.) What are steps for termination? (You hope it doesn’t happen, but you need to know that you have an out if you need it.)
3. Are you a member of AAR? (The Association of Author Representatives. Member agencies agree to abide by a code of ethics. Their website is NOTE: I wouldn’t waste time asking this — this is part of your research!
4. What books have you sold and what publishers do you work with? AGAIN: I think you should do your homework here, and instead of asking what the agent has sold, maybe ask some more specific questions related to those titles. For example: I saw on Publisher’s Marketplace that you recently sold a debut novel at auction. I’m also a new author, so maybe you could tell me a little about how that successful deal came about…
5. What is your submission strategy? Do you go on a big round to editors or do you do smaller rounds that let us hear feedback and make changes, should we need to?
6. How would you position this book to editors? Where do you see this fitting in to publishers’ lists?
7. What editorial changes do you think I should make to this manuscript?
8. What happens if we don’t sell this book?

Additional questions that I recall adding to my list include:

Why do you want to represent my memoir?

After I finish this book, I’d like to write a novel. Assuming we have a good experience working together on the memoir, what is your experience in placing debut fiction?

Do you have an assistant? If so, will I be dealing with the assistant or directly with you most of the time?
I went into my calls highly prepared, but here’s the thing: I didn’t really need to ask most of these questions. Agents conduct these calls all the time, and they have a good sense about what authors want and need to know. Both of the women I spoke to immediately told me why they wanted to represent my book, volunteered backstory on how they got into the industry, and the conversation flowed from there. But I was glad I had my question list, which ensured I had a cheat sheet to calm my nerves and a checklist to consult so that the call covered everything I wanted to know.


Go into the conversation with a clear — but not rigid — vision for your book and your career.

As writers, we deal with so much rejection that it’s easy to collapse in a heap of gratitude should an agent actually offer us the time of day, BUT if you’ve reached this stage of the process, it’s critical that you have a strong vision for your project and your career. Every agent is not a good agent. Every good agent is not a good match for every writer. Now is the time to put your insecurities aside and remember you have something to offer or the agent wouldn’t be pursuing you. This is a potential business partnership. Think it through and don’t just say yes.

As I mentioned above, I’m holding on to a big vision for my memoir, and so I was thrilled when one of the agents I spoke with articulated a similarly big vision. I loved her submission philosophy also: work and work on the material until it feels absolutely ready, and then go big and wide, to the “top” of publishing.

The agent I chose not to partner with also seemed likable and smart, but during our call she said she wanted to take my material out immediately to editors at both large and small presses at once. This made me feel like her strategy leaned more to a fast deal vs the best deal, which didn’t sit right. Also, she encouraged me to edit my proposal to expand on the market potential for my book among a certain audience of readers — an audience that others in the publishing industry had told me was small, small, small. This made me feel like the agent hadn’t really done her homework. Perhaps if she’d been the only one to an extend an offer I would have tried to talk through these issues and possibly signed with her, but because I had an offer that felt perfect in every way, my choice was clear.

All that said, the ideal agent brings experience to the table that complements your own. The ideal agent also can be more objective about a book and its prospects than you, the writer. Having a clear vision about your book is critical for finding the right champion, but at the same time, you have to remain open to feedback from someone who is an expert in the field. Again, it all comes down to educating yourself, and then trusting your gut to leap in the right direction.


Finally, set yourself up for success in the moment.

This could be the call of a lifetime, so optimize conditions around appointment time as much as possible. As I said earlier, I conducted my agent search over the summer, so when it came time to have conversations with interested agents, I was dealing with kids home on summer vacation. My children are teens, so you might think that they would refrain from bothering me while I’m on the phone, which would mean you’ve never parented a teenager.

I couldn’t take the risk.

For my calls, I got out of the house. I drove to a beautiful park in my neighborhood and parked my Volvo in a spot where the view was lovely and spent 15 minutes on deep breathing and meditation so that I was calm and ready when the phone rang. Not all of us have the luxury of getting away, but do what you can. If you have young kids, try to hire a sitter at call time or set the kids up with a movie. If you work full-time, try to set up the call for the start of the day or lunchtime, and maybe take it away from the desk where you’re a lawyer/administrator/ salesperson etc. Claim some space and privacy, and do your best.

When the phone rings, take a breath. Say hello. You’ve got this.


In case you missed my previous posts on Finding a Literary Agent, check out:

On Being a Late Bloomer: AKA “I finally got a literary agent”

Finding a Literary Agent: How do you decide who to query?

Finding a Literary Agent: Writing and personalizing the query letter

Finding a Literary Agent: Plotting your submission strategy







 Posted by at 9:01 pm
Oct 212016

So your project feels ready. You’ve compiled a list of literary agents you want to approach, and you’ve drafted a query letter. Now it’s time for the rubber to hit the road, the shit to hit the fan, and for similar cliches to apply…it’s time to start querying!

But wait…Should you submit one query at a time, or should you carpet bomb the entire literary agent community with your pitch? How long do you wait for a reply before moving on? Should you follow up with agents who ignore you? Here are some thoughts based on my own recent search.


Start by reviewing and ranking your prospect list:

Consider the names on your agent list. Maybe you heard an agent speak at a conference and walked away smitten. Perhaps one of your prospects represents your favorite book of all time. Or maybe your novel is set in Boston, so you really want an agent with ties to the city. Whatever the rationale, you’ve likely got some favorites, so rank your targets accordingly.

I sorted my intended agents into three groups: Platinum, Gold, and Silver. I had about ten agents in each category, with Platinum my top choices. My Platinum agents were: women (because I thought a woman would be more drawn to my memoir than a man;) well-established and/or well connected (because I’m hoping for a deal with a major house, not a small press;) agents with a track record in memoir; and agents I thought I had a reasonable shot at attracting. Only you can determine who qualifies as a top tier agent for your unique project — but trust that there are lots of excellent people out there who might not look perfect at first glance. Finding THE ONE may take time. Perseverance is key.


Test the waters with a reasonable sample size:

I wasn’t planning to do a major agent search this year. Here’s what happened: in January I met an agent I liked at a writers’ conference from a respected boutique agency. This young woman was new enough to the business to be scouting for clients, but she’d recently sold a book of parenting essays to a major house — and she asked to see my material!  I tried to seize the opportunity.

After revising and polishing my work, I sent my proposal to  The Conference Agent in April. Then I waited around and daydreamed about working with her. Her boss had represented one of my competing titles, so the agency seemed like a perfect match.

After a few weeks of post-submission silence, I followed up. The Conference Agent promised to get back to me within a week. Two weeks passed. I stalked her on twitter and saw she’d gone on vacation, so  I waited some more.

After nearly three months of no movement, I got impatient. I understand that the publishing industry operates at glacial speed most of the time, and I still hoped that this woman would fall in love with my project, but at this point I realized I needed to take charge of my career.

I’d been compiling a list of agents for a while in anticipation of an eventual search. I asked a friend if I could query her rep, an agent who happened to be a top choice for me, and got the green light. I sent my book proposal off to My Friend’s Agent and prepared myself to wait again. Then I stumbled upon this video from The Book Doctors, about creating a competitive environment for your manuscript.



I felt inspired. I’d worked really hard to make my proposal the best it could be and felt my query letter was solid. I decided to cast my net wider.

By now it was summer. Conventional wisdom says that summer is a bad time to reach out to agents because of rampant vacationing, but The Book Doctors video had me wound up. I shot out seven or eight query letters to Platimum prospects on a Friday afternoon in July with the subject line: “MEMOIR QUERY from a writer published in NYT, Washington Post and more.” Maybe  a lot of agents were in the Hamptons, but a few had to be working, right?

Indeed they were. Monday morning,  I woke up to a request for my memoir proposal from The Agent of a Super Famous Writer. I was THRILLED, but I knew what I had to do next.


If you’re certain your query is attracting interest, send out more feelers:

Three agents now had now shown interest in my work. A completely cold query had prompted a request for material from an agent I’d be humbled to work with. Inspired by The Book Doctors video, I resolved to maximize my chances. I sent The Agent of a Super Famous Writer my proposal, and then spent the rest of that Monday morning sending 8 or 9 more queries to folks on my Platinum and Gold lists. I also continued researching agents to see if there were hot prospects I’d missed, adding more names to my target list so that I’d be prepared to keep the search going as long as necessary.

Thankfully, by Tuesday, additional requests for my proposal were rolling in. One agent even requested both the proposal and the partial manuscript! Each time I got an additional request, I sent out two or three more queries. Every time I got a rejection, I sent out two or three more queries. I told myself it was a numbers game and I needed to keep hustling while cultivating as much detachment as possible (though by now I felt gobsmacked by the the prospect of working with The agent of a Super Famous Writer. OMG!)


If you’re getting real traction from one agent, let others know:

At this point, about five agents had my proposal, and one had also asked for the first 50 pages of the manuscript. To keep the momentum going, I sent follow up emails:

Hi Agent of a Super Famous Writer,

I realize that you’ve scarcely had time to review my memoir proposal, but I wanted to let you know that I’ve had some interest from other agents, including requests for the first 50 manuscript pages. Please let me know if you’d like me to send along the partial manuscript, so that you have the pages handy should the proposal spark your interest. I’m quite interested in working with you should you feel the same.

Thanks so much!

Guess what? The Agent of a Super Famous Writer got back to me within 24 hours to let me know she loved the proposal. Yes, she wanted to see the manuscript! In fact, I heard back from almost everyone I nudged, and all who responded asked for my manuscript.

I also followed up on all the Platinum prospects whom I hadn’t yet heard from yet:

SUBJECT: Follow up due to agent interest

Dear Agent,

I realize that you’ve scarcely had time to review the query letter I submitted on July 12, but I wanted to let you know that I’ve  had multiple requests for my proposal and pages from other agents. I’m sure you’re terribly busy, but I’m  following up with a fool’s optimism because your name was at the top of my query list.

My original query is included below. Please let me know if you’d like to see my proposal or manuscript. Thanks so much.


Some of these follow ups were ignored, but many prompted replies with requests for material. I also got friendly, personal rejections from many of the Platinum agents due to the follow up, a courtesy I preferred to being ignored.

Next, The Agent of a Super Famous Writer told me she wanted to schedule a call as soon as she finished reading the partial manuscript. She even suggested a specific time for the conversation. I jumped up and down with joy!! This could be it!!! After I calmed down, I sent a couple more queries, praying I was being overly diligent; I hoped that an offer of representation was around the corner.


Don’t let dashed hopes slow you down:

I never did talk to The Agent of a Super Famous Writer. She finished reading my partial manuscript and sent a message saying the manuscript didn’t live up to the promise of the proposal and was “overwrought and overwritten.” I was shocked. I’d hired a former acquisitions editor to go over all my material prior to submission, and the editor had felt the manuscript far stronger than the proposal!This was par for the course. Getting an agent so quickly would have been way too easy. But “overwritten” still hurt. And what if she was right?

I shared my distress with my husband and a professional networking group, got some pats on the back, and then I tried to shake off the heartbreak. I decided that if I got similar feedback on the book from other agents, I’d suspend submissions and regroup.


All you need is one:

The day after The Agent of a Super Famous Writer rejected me so harshly, I got an email from another agent who said my manuscript actually had moved her to tears! The Agent Who Cried wanted to schedule a phone call, so of course I said yes! Then I sent out one more round of follow ups and immediately heard back from a second agent who also wanted to chat. I scheduled both calls for later in the week. I knew it was possible that I could have those two calls and not get an offer from either agent, but there was  also a good chance I’d end up weighing two offers — and all you need is one!

I’m so thankful that I saw The Book Doctors video and had the courage to apply their strategy. By keeping my submission energy active and moving, I felt more in control of my fate. Perhaps some agents were turned off by my follow ups, but if so, nobody told me. EVERY rejection I received was personal, and included a thanks for querying and following up. In the end, the numbers broke down this way:

Total queries sent: 29

Queries that went ignored even with follow up: 12

Personal rejection letters received to query: 8

Requests for proposal and/or manuscript: 9

Personal rejection letters from agents who read material: 7

Requests for a phone call: 2

Offers of representation: 2


As you can see, almost half of the queries  I sent were never acknowledged, despite the fact that my search went incredibly well! To me, this proves that if you and your project are truly ready, it’s a matter of persistence. Don’t be passive and don’t give up!


In my next post, I’ll talk about preparing for an agent call, what to do when you finally get an offer or offers.



 Posted by at 10:09 pm

Finding a Literary Agent: Writing and Personalizing the Query Letter

 Finding a literary agent, Memoir, Writing  Comments Off on Finding a Literary Agent: Writing and Personalizing the Query Letter
Oct 012016

In my last post about finding a literary agent, I talked about compiling your list of targets. Once you’ve developed a list of 15 – 30 agents you’re interested in (and yes, I think you should create a list that long), you can start drafting and/or polishing your query.


I suggest doing some separate research on how to write a query letter. I’m not going to offer a complete how to, since there’s already tons of info out there. You’ll find query writing tips in many of the same places I recommended for finding agents’ names: articles in Writer’s Digest and Poets and Writers; literary agent blogs and websites; YouTube tutorials; and samples on author websites. Be sure to google “query letter” + your genre i.e. “query letter narrative nonfiction,” “query letter YA novel,” “query letter historical romance” etc to find the most relevant samples.

For me as a memoirist, this post from writer Alexis Grant, in which she shared her travel memoir query proved very helpful:

Example of a query that worked

I don’t know Alexis — I just found her blog via search engine — but I give her some credit for my successful agent search because of her sample intro paragraph:

“I’m seeking representation for my travel memoir, [Withholding Title to Surprise You Later]. I’m querying you because [personalize here for agent…]”

I really loved this straightforward approach, and the reminder to PERSONALIZE THE QUERY. This is so important — don’t we all want to feel special and chosen? Of course we do! Agents are no different. Here are a few query intros I actually sent, using Alexis’ template:

I’m seeking representation for a memoir provisionally titled [Also Withholding My Title Like Alexis Did]. I’m querying you because, many years  ago, when this memoir was still just an idea, I met [Editor] at a writers’ conference when she was still with William Morrow and she advised me to query you with this project when I was ready. It’s taken quite a long while, but here I am.

I’m querying you because you represent [Super Famous Writer] and I’m a longtime fan. Also, you’ve said that you wish that you’d agented WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? and I wish I’d written that book! Finally, I suspect that my book may align with several of the editorial interests you’ve highlighted on your website.

I’m querying you because you’ve expressed interest in voice-driven work as well as books strongly rooted in their setting, and I feel that my memoir aligns with those preferences.

I’m querying you because of your track record in publishing, and also because of this blog post that I found, which indicates that you advise writers to seek out agents who possess “humility and a willingness to be wrong.” I found that refreshing. Also, your client [Debut Novelist] told Writer’s Digest that you’re easy to talk to, which is so important — and you’ve obviously helped her forge a successful career!

None of the above agents ended up signing me, but two of them requested and  read my material promptly. The other two sent personal and friendly rejections explaining why they didn’t have time to read or represent my work right now. Finally, here’s the intro I sent to Bonnie Solow, who is now my agent:

I’m querying you because your name came up in a discussion of great literary agents in an online networking group I frequent. Also, your website indicates that you’re interested in memoir and cultural studies, and my book touches on both categories.

There are other ways to structure your query, of course — fiction writers may want to drop the agent right into the plot of the novel, and nonfiction writers might choose to grab the agent with a startling fact — but I think you can’t go wrong by simply saying “I’m querying you for a specific reason because I’m a professional who does her homework.” (And it doesn’t hurt to be more succinct than I was in a couple of those cases, either, but note — I got positive responses despite imperfection.)

Now, here’s an element I included in my query I haven’t seen recommended by anyone else:

I included links to a couple of my published essays that related to my memoir as part of my bio section, like this:

My essays on parenting and family have appeared in print and online at Adoptive Families, Brain, Child, The Sun, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, The New York Times, and many more publications. I’ve written humor for Scary Mommy, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and espnW, parenting advice for Esme and, and I’m a frequent contributor to The Kitchn, a food/cooking site. Here are a couple of recent essays I’ve published that relate to the subject of the memoir:

White Rice: a Love Story, at The Kitchn

Is she happy? Is she loved? Remembering the girl who was almost my daughter, in On Parenting at The Washington Post and also recorded for Audible

My thought was that maybe a busy agent or agent’s assistant might click those links, enjoy my writing style, and thus be more inclined to request my proposal and/or partial manuscript. Clicking a link wouldn’t cost the person reading my letter much time, and if they disliked the essays, they didn’t have to bother requesting more material. I think the key here is to include links that are directly relevant to the project you’re pitching. The most popular pieces I’ve written are my Scary Mommy posts, but to link to them here wouldn’t have made sense, since the memoir I’m pitching is more of a heartbreaker (though I did highlight the popularity of those posts in my book proposal.)

My final bit of advice about query letters is to take time to personalize them at the end of the letter too. Many agents like to receive a sample of your project with the query itself, so I always specified what I’d enclosed and why. This is another opportunity to show that you’re a careful, savvy pro. Here’s a few actual samples:

I’ve attached my proposal here, in accordance with the guidelines on your Publishers Marketplace page. Please let me know if you’d like to see the partial manuscript as well. Thanks so much for considering my work.

I’ve pasted the first ten pages of the memoir below, in accordance with the guidelines on the [literary agency’s] site. Please let me know if you’d like to see the proposal and/or the partial manuscript as well. Thanks so much for considering my work.

And for agents who didn’t specifically ask for samples, I tucked them into the bottom of my email anyway, below the signature line!

I’ve pasted the first ten pages of the manuscript below for your quick review, should you be interested. Please let me know if you’d like to take a look at the proposal and/or the partial manuscript. Thanks so much for considering my work.

What did I have to lose if an agent glanced down and liked what she saw? Finding an agent can take MONTHS. I’m not getting any younger so I tried to gently push the envelope.

I apologize for not sharing my complete query here, but I want to keep some details about my book under wraps until my agent and I have taken it out on submission to editors, but I hope these tips on personalizing the query will help in the meantime.

I’m getting ready to take off on a two-week writing residency to prepare my book to go out to publishing houses, so I may defer my next post on finding an agent until I return mid-October. Sign up for updates to make sure you don’t miss the next installment, when I’ll talk about strategy: How do you know if your query is working? How many agents should you query at once? How long should you wait for a reply? And how do you keep yourself from going crazy during the process?????